How a Scientific “Bridge-Builder” From Academia Benefitted from an Innovation Fellow Project in Venture Capital

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The Mass General Brigham Innovation Fellows Program was established five years ago to provide short-term, experiential career development opportunities for future leaders in healthcare focused on accelerating collaborative innovation between science and industry.

The program facilitates personnel exchanges between Harvard Medical School staff from Mass General Brigham hospitals and participating biopharmaceutical, device, venture capital and digital health companies. To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the program, we spoke to five Innovation fellows (past and present) to learn more about their experiences.

This is 1 of 5 profiles on Innovation Fellows honoring the 5th anniversary of the Program’s launch. For more information about the program, please contact Cary Mazzone at innovationfellows@partners.org

 

How a Scientific “Bridge-Builder” From Academia Benefitted from an Innovation Fellow Project in Venture Capital

Rahul Mahajan, MD, PhD, a neurocritical care physician and researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), has always been interested in the gaps and opportunities that occur when bridging different fields of scientific study.

As an undergraduate, he spanned the worlds of biology and medicine with those of mathematics and physics by pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering. As a clinician-researcher, he bridges caring for patients with neurological disorders with research into the underlying causes of these disorders.

Participating in the Mass General Brigham Innovation Fellows Program several years ago represented yet another opportunity to build a bridge—this one between the worlds of academic medicine and venture capital.

Mahajan conducted a three-year Fellow project at Third Rock Ventures (50% of his time in year one and 25% in years two and three) where he was part of a team working through the due diligence for a potential therapy in the areas of neuroinflammation and microglial function.

The team was tasked with thinking through the clinical developmental pipeline, what indications or diseases to target, what the clinical trials would look like, what patient populations to recruit and what biomarkers to look for.

“Rahul brought practical, real world patient care insights to his work every day,” says Walter Kowtoniuk, PhD, venture partner at Third Rock. “His ability to integrate the reality of what patients are going through and how the medical system is setup was instrumental in helping us identify opportunities to help patients.”

“(Rahul’s) ability to integrate the reality of what patients are going through and how the medical system is setup was instrumental in helping us identify opportunities to help patients.”
– Walter Kowtoniuk, PhD

Mahajan found a lot to be impressed by at Third Rock, particularly the level of scientific expertise among the team members and the recognition that developing a successful therapeutic or company is a team effort.

In academic medicine, there is often a motivation to be the one person who does it all—you come up with the experiment, do the experiment in cells and then in mice, design a clinical trial and try to treat your patients, he explains.

When you step outside of academia, you realize there are people with intense expertise within those subdomains—from chemists with deep expertise in pharmacodynamics to business experts who can structure the deals necessary to turn new findings into therapies that can benefit patients.

“When you step outside of academia, you realize there are people with intense expertise within those subdomains—from chemists with deep expertise in pharmacodynamics to business experts who can structure the deals necessary to turn new findings into therapies that can benefit patients.”
– Rahul Mahajan, MD, PhD

“It comes down to finding where the deficiencies are in your skill set and building a team of other experts who can do those things at a high level and high success rate,” he says.

The experience also gave Mahajan a newfound appreciation for the skills he developed during his clinical training.

“After four years of residency, you start to undervalue your skills because you’re around other doctors all the time and you start to believe that everyone knows the same things as you,” he says. “When you take a step outside the hospital, I think it gives a newfound understanding of all you’ve learned.”

Mahajan considered pursuing a career at Third Rock after his experience but ultimately decided to return to academia to further develop his expertise on the intersection of brain health and vascular health.

At BWH, he and his research team are using big data to develop complex multidimensional biomarkers to better monitor disease progression, improve clinical trials and identify new strategies for prevention.

Mahajan says that his time at Third Rock provided him a new lens through which to view his research findings. “Having these skills and understanding of how scientific ideas get turned into therapies will help me better recognize when something valuable turns up in my own work.”

He would also encourage others to explore the opportunities provided by the Innovation Fellows Program.

“I think there was a time 10 years ago—and probably more recently the further you get away from Boston—where spending time outside of academia in private industries would be looked upon with suspicion,” he says. “But I think we are moving away from that. These collaborations are necessary to get treatments into patients at the end of the day.”

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